Fern prompts discussion on statewide school issues

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Democrat Rep. Dave Fern recently returned to the Whitefish School Board to check in on the district and share some of his work in the recent legislative session.

“I’ve been away from the board for a while, and I’ve discovered that when you’re on the board, or when you’re in the Legislature, you’re sort of in your own little bubble,” Fern said. “I reached my board peak in the bubble when I had three children in the three different schools, I was the most in tuned then. What I found as most interesting, being away from the board, is that I really don’t know what’s going on.”

Fern, who represents House District 5 in the Montana Legislature, served nearly 24 years on the school board before resigning late last year.

During the June 13 meeting, Fern encouraged an interactive discussion with the trustees, bringing up recent bills he’d worked on in the state Legislature concerning education and asking for a two-sentence summary of each board member’s thoughts on the issue and whether it belonged in the realm of education.

The first bill discussed was House Bill 332, which concerned renaming Columbus Day.

Most of the trustees said they agreed with renaming the holiday, but whether the issue was an educational one was muddy.

“I think Columbus Day is certainly a curricular issue and would be a great classroom discussion, but I’m not sure if it’s an educational bill,” Trustee Katie Clarke said. “I’m not sure what the other committees are and where it would fit best.”

“I don’t think it falls in the purview of eduction,” Trustee Shannon Hanson agreed.

The bill passed in the House, with Indigenous Day or Montana Heritage Day as the new name for the holiday, but failed in the Senate due to disagreements on what the name should be, Fern said. However, because holidays influence curriculum and it would start a conversation on the issue, it was an educational topic, he said.

“When something is declared a holiday, it actually has ramifications on the curriculum. It means, in a sense, that it’s mandated that it be discussed. You can do a lot of creative things with Columbus Day, how it affected indigenous populations, but you’re going to talk about it,” he said. “That’s why it ended up, I believe, as an education issue.”

Another discussion focused on a proposed bill to raise the drop out age for high school students from 16 to 18 years old. While the bill didn’t make it out of its initial committee meetings, the concept did prompt thoughtful discussion during the School Board meeting.

“One of the challenges I think we have as a school district with students that are able to drop out at 16, is we have no way to really incentivize them, to bring them back to school,” Superintendent Heather Davis Schmidt said. “It’s our most struggling students that are making those decisions, and their families are making those decisions, unfortunately for the wrong reasons.”

Trustees Ruth Harrison and Hanson noted the need to make sure students are staying in school because of what education offers, not because they simply have to.

“I will welcome the day when our educational delivery has improved to the place where the culture changes, where kids are staying in school because it’s a whole new world, that to stay in education we can provide more opportunities to them,” Harrison said.

Hanson agreed, citing the need for a proverbial “carrot on a stick,” where the benefits of education are the carrot that students will chase.

“All they’re going to do is technically stay in school and not show up,” he said. “I would support something that provides a carrot, that says, ‘Hey, here’s why you should stay in school.’”

Fern also applauded the work of the board and the district since he left the board in December, but reiterated the need to get district issues out to the public, especially in the case of special projects like a Muldown Elementary School rebuild or the construction of the Center for Sustainability and Entrepreneurship.

“There are some times we really need the public to participate, to give us permission to do certain things. So as I think about a Muldown expansion or renewal, we’re going to need participation by the public,” he said. “I think that it’s important that you keep your eye on the ball and figure out ways to send these messages out in lots of different mediums.”

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